NY Times - December 28, 2017by LUIS FERRÉ-SADURNÍ
Almost six weeks after a fire at 565 West 144th Street in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood, few of the 36 families that lived there have found new homes. Credit Andres Kudacki/Associated Press On an air mattress on the living room floor of her sister’s apartment, Borgia Nuñez, 87, tries not to think of the flames that filled her apartment building.
She never imagined it would be like this — her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson curled beside her, four generations of the Nuñez family sharing the same mattress.
Almost six weeks ago, a huge fire roared through the family’s apartment building on West 144th Street in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, destroying the homes of the Nuñezes and 35 other families. Over 250 firefighters and emergency personnel responded to the fire, which officials said was fanned by the high winds that day.
The majority of the families, most of them from the Dominican Republic, have squeezed into relatives’ apartments. Nine families have been placed in city shelters or hotels, some as far as Jamaica, Queens, about 15 miles away. Few have found permanent housing.
That is because the families cannot afford most of what they find, they said. Many lived in rent-stabilized units, paying $800 to $1,300 a month for three- to five-bedroom apartments; market-rate rents for similarly sized apartments are beyond their reach.
“God is putting us to the test to see if we’re worthy,” Ms. Nuñez said in Spanish on a recent evening.
Ms. Nuñez remembers the day she moved into her three-bedroom apartment: Sept. 20, 1974.
She said it took her a while to feel comfortable in a neighborhood where drugs and crime were rampant. But she came to love her second-floor apartment, where she lived with a daughter, Dulce Amada Peña; a granddaughter, Suhey Madera; and a 3-year-old great-grandson, Sael Madera.
Since the fire, they have been sharing the one-bedroom apartment of Ms. Nuñez’s sister, Milagros Nuñez, also in Hamilton Heights. But it is uncomfortable: Eight people share one bathroom. And Ms. Nuñez, who has trouble with her spinal cord and has osteoporosis, has to be lifted by others from the air mattress every morning, “like with a crane,” her sister said.
“We’re hanging in,” Ms. Madera, 27, said. “It’s not like we’re sleeping at a shelter. We’re with our family.”
The family used to pay about $800 a month for their apartment and coming up with it was a challenge. Ms. Nuñez and Ms. Peña are retired and live on fixed incomes. Ms. Madera earned a degree in psychology last year and is looking for a job.
Ms. Madera has been leading the apartment hunt, but she said she was quickly realizing they might have to squeeze into a smaller apartment away from Hamilton Heights, where real estate prices are on the rise. The other day she found a one-bedroom in the Bronx for $1,500 a month, but it required $5,500 up front.
Immediately after the fire, the Red Cross stepped in and provided tenants with emergency shelter for two or three days.
Later, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development offered the tenants temporary housing in shelters or hotels. Families may stay indefinitely as long as they are working with case managers to find permanent housing options, said Juliet Pierre-Antoine, the department’s press secretary.
For Elizabeth Mercado and her four relatives, that meant being placed in a Brooklyn hotel. Her daily commute to Hamilton Heights is unbearable, she said. She is out the door by 6:30 a.m. and takes two trains and a bus to get her grandson to Our Lady of Lourdes School on West 143rd Street. The commute can take up to two hours.
But, she said, others have it worse. A family of three was put up in a shelter in Far Rockaway, Queens, over two hours away from Hamilton Heights, she said.
And, she added, “An older lady was sent to a shelter in Manhattan where she needs to share a bathroom with seven other people.”
While grappling with the trauma of losing their homes, the tenants are also trying to replace destroyed documents, an uphill battle they said involves countless appointments and endless paperwork.
When applying for apartments, landlords have asked for copies of birth certificates, social security cards, bank statements and pay stubs. Replacing a social security card, for example, requires two other forms of identification and can take weeks.
“It shouldn’t be so difficult for them,” said Representative Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat of New York whose district includes Hamilton Heights. Mr. Espaillat said his office had helped two families find apartments and he hoped to find apartments for eight other families by the end of the year. But he said it had been harder than even he anticipated.
Because of incomplete documentation, the city’s Housing Development Corporation had denied eight tenants the Section 8 vouchers they need to subsidize the rent for a new apartment, Mr. Espaillat’s office said. His office is working to expedite social security cards.
“It’s been eye-opening to see the entanglement of the bureaucracy and how it’s almost designed for you to push until they say yes,” Mr. Espaillat said. “It’s horrendous.”
When she’s not running around the city trying to get copies of documents, Roselind Diaz walks by her scorched apartment building to see if there has been any progress.
With the help of the building superintendent, Ms. Diaz, 30, retrieved her passport, purse and glasses from her first-floor apartment. She assumes everything else is lost: her laptop, wallet, about 60 pairs of shoes and her clothing.
Ms. Diaz, a teacher, has been sleeping on a couch at her mother’s on the Upper West Side. But she has no privacy. “I feel like I’m 16 again,” she said.
“My plan is to stay where I am until I can pick myself back up financially,” Ms. Diaz said. “I’m at a complete negative right now. It’s ridiculous.”
Follow Luis Ferré-Sadurní on Twitter @luisferre.
‘It Hurts to Lose Everything’: Huge Fire in Manhattan Displaces Dozens NOV. 18, 2017